How to Nail an In-Person Pitch: Some Questions You Should Be Ready For
I love taking in-person pitches at publishing conferences.
It’s how I found Lindsey Smith (her book, Eat Your Feelings, comes out with St. Martin’s Press next year!), and I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to talk with numerous writers around the country. About their books, about their platforms, all kinds of good stuff, sharing advice as well as dishing out suggestions for their projects.
But without fail, at every conference I attend, there are certain questions I ask that seem to trip writers up. And sometimes, not having answers to those questions sends up serious red flags.
So I thought I’d do a little post, to dish out some tips for those of you pitching agents and editors in-person. Because while you may have polished that pitch to perfection, you’re going to need to answer these kind of questions.
1. What’s Your Book About?: Right away, at every conference I go to, when I sit down with an author, this is what I open up with. Tell me about your book. What have you written? What’s it about? Give me the details.
This should be the quickest and easiest question to answer, but sometimes it trips people up.
Every writer comes prepared to talk about their book at these things. It’s why you are there, for the most part. But not every writer is able to talk about their book in a quick, succinct way. Remember, you’ve only got like ten, maybe fifteen minutes here to sum up your entire story.
Don’t use this time to explain the entire intricate plot of the book. This isn’t a book report. Treat it as though you’re reading the back-jacket copy of a book to a friend in your local bookstore. You’re shopping and you’re trying to sell them on this book. That’s what you would show them.
You can read the jacket copy of a book in a minute or two. You want to have plenty of time for the agent to ask YOU questions and for you to ask your own. Don’t spend it explaining every little thing. Save room.
2. How Many Words?: Know the word count of your book. Agents and editors are going to ask this.
And that being said, before you even get ready to pitch, know what the typical word count is for your respective genre. If you show up boasting an enormous, unheard of word count for a book, it might tell the agent / editor that you’re not familiar with the genre.
Writer’s Digest has a great post about typical book lengths here. There are exceptions to every rule, of course. Just be savvy.
3. Why Tell This Story? or Why Is This Your Story to Tell?: This question has made a few people uncomfortable during in-person pitch sessions, but it’s one that I absolutely always ask, when a writer talks to me about a novel that deals with sensitive subjects. Particularly ones that are close to my heart.
If you’ve written a book say, about characters living with mental illness, or maybe a story with a diverse cast of characters, or a novel about characters living with disabilities… I’m going to want to know what your experience is with all of this. Are you representing these characters right?
I can’t tell you how many people have pitched me a novel about a character living with mental illness, and when I ask about research and sensitivity reads, I get no response. When I tell them how my wife lives with mental illness (she blogs about it here) and how I can tell right away if someone hasn’t done their homework, usually the pitch session is over.
So. Do your homework. Be able to explain why this is your story to tell. Did you get sensitivity readers? Did you do your research? Has it been read widely?
And even after all of that, if you can’t explain why it’s your story to tell… then it isn’t your story to tell.
4. What Have You Read in the Genre Recently?: Speaking of genre… I get pitched a lot of YA, sci-fi, and fantasy at conferences, which is fantastic, because that is what I’m there looking for. But nothing makes me hit the brakes faster than when I ask what a writer has read recently in their respective genre, and they don’t have an answer.
Or even worse, when they say they don’t really read in their genre.
If you tell me that you don’t actively read, that throws up a red flag. When potential YA authors tell me the last great YA novel they read was The Chronicles of Narnia (this happens a lot, this isn’t a silly joke example) or that they don’t really read YA at all, I immediately lose interest.
I want to work with writers who actively read where they want to write.
Be ready with an answer. And if you don’t have an answer because you aren’t actively reading the kind of books you want to write… maybe rethink what you’re writing? The best way to be a good writer, is to read. If you aren’t reading, you probably aren’t writing anything worth reading.
5. What’s Your Platform?: This is the kind of question you’re going to get asked if you’re writing non-fiction.
As I’ve rambled about on here before, platform doesn’t really matter when it comes to fiction. It helps, sure. But, your story is what’s important here. But with non-fiction, editors and agents want to work with experts. Writing memoir? They want to work with authors who can prove people want to hear their story. Writing a collection of essays? We’re going to want to see where you’ve been published before.
And when it comes to that non-fiction book you’re working on, be it about a major historical figure or how to be a good parent, you need to show your expertise. Where have you been blogging? Where have you been speaking?
Remember, platform isn’t just your social media presence. It’s your regular speaking engagements, the places you’ve written. Make sure you’re established there, and have something to discuss.
Literally me, when asked about weekends and my life.
6.What’s Your Life Outside of Writing Like: Gasp! A question that doesn’t have to do with your book? That’s right.
Here’s the thing about agents and writers, friends. It becomes a very personal relationship. For some. At least, for me it does. These become the people you talk to every day. Me and my authors, we talk in Google Chat constantly. We text. We gossip about non-book things frequently. You become friends.
So be ready for an agent to want to get to know you a little better. Don’t shrug and say “oh, nothing really interesting” when chances are, you do have something interesting. Share bits about yourself. Your hobbies. What you do for a living. What you’re studying. Things like that. Making a personal connection is important here.
And those are the usual things I bring up. So! Come ready with answers. Because we are going to have questions.